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Whipping up cookies, candy and other homemade goodies to send to loved ones is a holiday tradition for many families. This year, since the coronavirus pandemic will prevent some holiday get-togethers, we may be shipping even more treats to family and friends for Thanksgiving and the December holidays.
Every holiday season, Greg Gagnon, who owns UPS Store franchises in San Diego, helps people ship gifts, including food items, around the world. Cookies usually top the list, but he’s seen people send everything from cheesecakes and apple pies to cupcakes and burritos.
“And, the whole fruitcake joke is a real thing,” Gagnon said. “People do send fruitcake.”
While Gagnon expects the tradition to continue, 2020 has been full of unknowns, and shipping for the holidays is no exception. “We’re really aware that it’s going to probably be much bigger this year, and we’re preparing for that,” Gagnon told HuffPost.
Last year, the U.S. Postal Service planned to deliver 800 million packages between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. This year will probably be even busier. COVID-19 has already overwhelmed shipping services, which have been dealing with more packages from an influx of online shopping. And reports have circulated of rotting food at postal facilities because of delays.
All this may have you wondering whether it’s safe to send homemade foods this holiday season. Food safety experts say it is, but they urge you to keep a few things in mind as you package items and send them on their way.
Is it safe to ship food?
“The technical answer for that would be if you do it right, it’s safe,” said Archie Magoulas, a technical information specialist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service.
The USDA recommends shipping perishable items in a foam or corrugated cardboard box with a cold source, like dry ice or a frozen gel pack. Use a speedy shipping method and alert the person on the receiving end about the package so they can open and refrigerate it immediately.
“Ship early in the week: That reduces the risk of a package getting stuck at a shipping facility over a weekend, if weekend delivery isn’t available in the recipient’s area.”
Magoulas, who also helps answer the USDA’s food safety hotline, said he often receives calls about food packages that have been left at someone’s front door for hours, asking whether the contents are safe to eat. The answer depends on whether the item is perishable or nonperishable, and its temperature.
Perishable foods, like frosted cakes, pies, soft cookies, cookies with fillings, or other high-moisture items, should ideally stay at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below in transport. To keep it that cold, Magoulas suggests freezing homemade goodies before shipping, and then using insulated packaging and a cold source.
If foods reach the so-called danger zone, between 40 degrees and 140 degrees F, pathogenic bacteria can grow. Any food held in this range for two hours or longer is unsafe to eat and could cause foodborne illness, according to the USDA.
“Even if [the food] feels cool, that doesn’t mean it’s safe,” Magoulas said. But there’s a way you can test food’s safety once you’ve received it. “We say to put a thermometer near the surface and see how cold it is. It should still be 40 degrees or below. You’d be surprised how often people say it feels cold, and when they check it, it may not even be 40 at all.”
Foods may not look, smell or taste spoiled, but could still be dangerous and should be thrown away, Magoulas said. And, immediately toss any package that arrives damaged or opened.
Nonperishable items, like jams, hard cookies and most breads that don’t contain any fillings, are generally less risky to ship. “You can deliver those without even any refrigeration, just in a regular box,” Magoulas said.
How to package foods to ship
Most homemade holiday goodies are mailable, a Postal Service spokesperson told HuffPost, but it’s a good idea to check the USPS list of restrictions.
To keep your package’s contents safe and preserve freshness, wrap your treats well in an airtight container, such as a zip-top bag or plastic container. Choose a shipping box that’s larger than its contents to leave room for bubble wrap or other packing material to protect what’s inside.
UPS Stores and other shipping outlets accept pre-packaged parcels, but will usually pack items for you, too. Pre-pandemic, Gagnon said customers often brought in foods to ship that weren’t always sealed. This year, to limit contact, he urges anyone shipping homemade foods around the holidays to bring their goodies in a plastic container, sealed bag or wrapped well with foil or plastic wrap.
“Then, we’ll take the item and find the right box for it with enough packaging around it to make sure it’s not a mess by the time it arrives,” Gagnon said. “I know there’s a really good chance that there’s going to be a lot more of these custom shipments this year because people can’t (deliver goodies) in person as easily.”
Most UPS Stores have dry ice and other packaging available for shipping perishables. FedEx also recommends using insulated packaging and refrigerants, like dry ice or gel packs, and offers a cold-shipping package.
Gagnon suggests placing a label inside the package with the delivery and return addresses, in case the outside label gets ripped off or the package gets damaged.
The best way to send your goodies
When you’re sending foods, especially perishables, opt for the swiftest shipping method, Magoulas said, such as overnight or second-day shipping. The cost of shipping homemade goodies over the holidays will vary based on the size and weight of the package, shipping method and service, and the ZIP code where it’s going.
Another tip: Ship early in the week, Gagnon said. That reduces the risk of a package getting stuck at a shipping facility over a weekend, if weekend delivery isn’t available in the recipient’s area.
With the anticipated busier-than-usual holiday shipping season coming up, Gagnon also suggests sending any gifts, edible or otherwise, as early as you can.
“I’ve seen so many holiday seasons, they always are busy, but we’re very aware that it’s going to probably be much bigger this year,” he said.
The Postal Service expects traffic to increase starting Dec. 7, with Dec. 14 to Dec. 21 predicted to be the busiest mailing, shipping and delivery week, according to a spokesperson.
The holiday shipping deadlines for USPS, FedEx and UPS are available online.
“Early is always the better thing,” Gagnon said. “You certainly don’t want to have stuff show up late.”